Rebuilding the News: Metropolitan Journalism in the Digital Age (book review)




When I started reviewing books for my blog, the first titles were not directly related to ‘development’, but I approached the reviews from a development perspective. By reviewing C.W. Anderson’s Rebuilding the News: Metropolitan Journalism in the Digital Age, a media ethnography about news reporting in Philadelphia, I am reviving this tradition. This has partly to do with my professional shift towards media and communication studies and partly with the fact that the book raises some interesting questions not just about news in the digital age, but also about organizations, adaptation and how to engage with different audiences.

Rebuilding the News argues that, in the face of the chaos pressing in on them from all sides, local news organizations made particular choices about how best to adapt to emerging economic, social, and technological realities. The book analyzes the economic, organizational, and cultural factors that helped shape and direct these choices. In particular, local journalism’s occupational self-image, its vision of itself as an autonomous workforce conducting original reporting on behalf of a unitary public, blocked the kind of cross-institutional collaboration that might have helped journalism thrive in an era of fractured communication (p.3)
It would be too easy to simply add ‘rupture’ here and mention that basically every industry, including the development and philanthropical industries, has been affected by digital change. Anderson’s fascinating approach is to employ network ethnography and treat the news system in Philadelphia (printed daily newspapers, online news sites, independent and activist digital projects) as an ecosystem. For many years he spent time in the newsrooms, interviewing journalists and observing how news are made – from an early morning traffic accident to breaking news on a website. From an ethnographic perspective the book delivers what it promises at the end of the introduction:
The book spends time inside newsrooms and editorial suites of Philadelphia’s major news organizations. It travels to gentrifying neighborhoods with names such as Fishtown and Northern Liberties to see how ordinary citizens are creating their own, quasi-journalistic practices of digital communication. It looks to Philadelphia’s suburbs to chronicle how a new breed of bloggers is rewiring the production of sports journalism (p.11).
It is easy to see parallels between the developments in Philadelphia and developments in the aid industry, from DIY approaches to voluntourism to social enterprises.

Rewriting the story of constant decline
Anderson
’s story starts in 1997 and the first part is already very interesting: Not only does it present a netnography of early digital approaches to news reporting, sharing and writing, but it highlights some innovative practices and early adoptions of the chances of digital technology. ‘The Internet’ did not simply destroy news culture:
The dot-com crash of 2000, along with perpetual managerial interference from Knight-Ridder executives, wiped out many of the gains made by Philadelphia’s traditional media, creating a new round of more cautious reinvention in the mid-2000s (p.51).
And as we will see in subsequent chapters, those cautious changes may already have been ‘too little, too late’ after corporate interference with early innovation.

The second part takes us to 2008, July 16, A Day in the Life of Twenty-First-Century Journalism. Just another day in the life of local news reporting, and yet Anderson manages to highlight

the tension between entanglement of practice and the purging nature of rhetoric (…). At the same time, the dominant feeling I gathered from my research in Philadelphia’s newsrooms was one of business as usual. How could the Philadelphia news ecosystem be simultaneously flying apart and carrying on as if nothing strange was happening to journalism? (p.57)
Maybe it is just me, but somehow this reminds me of our research on the global summit culture and the ritualization around totems like ‘MDGs’ or ‘poverty reduction’ or ‘commitments’ to development. And even if Anderson does not paint a simple picture of decline and gloom and carefully outlines the nuances of reporting hybridization, the bigger questions is whether yesterday’s organizational arrangements still correspond with today’s digital realities. As Anderson points out, before the crash, the bankruptcy of the major news organization in Philadelphia, there simply was not a stasis that led to inevitable decline:
There is a paradox here (…). Under jurisdictional pressure from a variety of new journalistic and quasi-journalistic work practices, there was a growing newsroom-based invocation of reporting as the heart of the Philadelphia newswork. This very act of reporting, however, also appeared to be under technological and economic stress and suffering from a diminished occupational authority. (…) So at the same time that traditional reporting was emerging as the valorized capstone of journalistic work, its very operations were becoming less insulated, more hybridized, and more difficult to sustain’ (p.98).
This really got me reflecting on both the state of ‘development reporting’ and popular representations of development in mainstream news, but also more generally about the future of some of the organizational foundations of development and how new partnerships and arrangements may not guarantee survival.

Building news networks

Anderson asks in chapter 5 whether ‘“networked journalism” (is) the inevitable outcome of large-scale processes of technological, organizational, and economic change’? (p.107)

From an ethnographic research point of view the chapter contains a real gem when he analyzes ‘the process of network assemblage using an online artifact’ (p.111) and how different news organizations came together after a blog post about the future of news triggered offline meetings and discussions.
But ultimately as the chapter title What we have here is a failure to collaborate (2005-2009) indicates, old rituals, beliefs and organizational dynamics proved to be very powerful:

Large news organizations, after decades of monopolistic positioning inside local news ecosystems and the accompanying professional pride that came from real local power and journalistic standards, tended to see themselves as one-stop shop for news of public import. Traditional journalists in Philadelphia often failed to see a meaningful, publicly legitimate communicative world beyond their own organizational walls (p.130-131).
In the end Dark days and green shoots (2009-2011) mark the contemporary state of local news reporting.

“My old medium is dying, and my new one doesn’t pay”
Precarity has become part of journalism (as it has for parts of development work and academia, of course) and the quote by an award-winning news photographer sums it up very well. In his final chapter Anderson focuses on how foundations finally moved into a strategic position in the informational ecosystem after commercial newspapers had to file for bankruptcy. We certainly know this from the Gates foundation’s engagement with the Guardian’s development section, but there are many more examples around public service reporting. But Anderson is less optimistic for the case of local news:

As long as the primary work task at the institutions that make up the news ecosystem remains reporting – defined conservatively as the routinized collection of evidence from traditional bureaucratic sources, packaged at regular chronological intervals – most newswork in most places most of the time will struggle to be open and will struggle to be networked (p.161).
At the end of the day, his reflections on ‘future of news’ panels at conferences reads very familiar to both ‘future of development’ or ‘failure of development’ events:
When the panel was over, however, and the curtain cam down, these reporters, editors, and executives usually returned to their newsrooms and did exactly what they had been doing before the speech began (p.162).
All in all, I really enjoyed Anderson’s ethnography. The book has a very nice flow and is telling an interesting story rather than re-telling a PhD; the methodological appendix at the end of the book is useful for researchers and wraps up an excellent case study of media ethnography that is definitely of interest for students and researchers - and the development community as well since the challenges of local journalism are often similar to those of global aid work.

Anderson, C.W.: Rebuilding the News. Metropolitan Journalism in the Digital Age.
ISBN 978-1-4399-0934-8, 218 pages, USD 27.95,

Temple University Press, Philadelphia, PA.

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